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October 23, 2002

 

Orthodox-Catholic unity: A conversation with Metropolitan Isaiah

'The scandal of Christianity today is that the church is not one'

By Roxanne King

Metropolitan Isaiah is head of the Greek Orthodox Diocese of Denver, which is dedicating a new diocesan center Nov. 1. He recently spoke to the Register about the growing fraternity between the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches.

Register: Tell me about the Catholic-Orthodox conference you just attended in Chicago (Oct. 8-10).

Metropolitan Isaiah: I'm a member of the Joint Committee of Orthodox and Catholic Bishops. We meet once a year to discuss a number of things and also to exchange news information on what's happening in the Orthodox Church and in the Catholic Church.

For example, we had a presentation on baptism and how each of our traditions looks at baptism. We talked about immersion and sprinkling. We had a good discussion on the filioque (creed). In the Orthodox Church we use the original formula that says the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father, whereas in the Catholic tradition it says the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and Son, so we discussed that.

What we try to do is find out why there are differences. How the differences came about. And sometimes we realize that the differences aren't theological, but —and I hate to say it — political. It's good to back up to see how these things began, what was the reason that certain teachings, traditions differ, if they do.

Register: What progress was made at this last conference?

Metropolitan Isaiah: I've been with this joint committee since 1988, more than a dozen years. I believe each and every time the progress is that we have a better understanding of one another. We don't look at our differences as others may have done say 50, 100 years ago when the difference was stressed in such a way that it almost could have brought about a confrontation: I'm right, you're wrong. We don't go into that area. We just try to better understand why these things are. We were born into these situations — we didn't create them.

The best thing about these meetings is that we have developed a very good rapport with each other, good relations of sensitivity in demonstrating our friendship, our fellowship and fraternal relations with one another. There's no question when you examine all Christian bodies that the two churches that are closest to each other today are the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox.

Register: How about locally — I know that you and Archbishop Chaput enjoy a warm, cordial relationship. Tell me about the progress you've seen in Catholic-Orthodox relations between your diocese and the Roman Catholic diocese here.

Metropolitan Isaiah: The archbishop and I have developed a good relationship and we would like to see that filter down to the clergy and the laity. We believe that this can come about very easily.

The archbishop has come to our services here and he was very warmly received. Our people have a very high respect for the archbishop and for the Catholic tradition in general because they who are knowledgeable know that we started together as one church and it's been less than 1,000 years since we've been separated.

Register: What kind of progress have you seen since the Second Vatican Council?

Metropolitan Isaiah: Up until Vatican II, we didn't even talk to each other. Neither recognized the existence of the other. In the Orthodox historical mind the Roman Catholic Church did a number of bad things to us. We always point to the Crusades, which harmed Orthodox Christians as well as did what they were supposed to do, at least temporarily, in freeing the Holy Land from the non-Christians in those centuries. The patriarch of Constantinople and Pope Paul VI lifted the excommunications that were directed to each other in 1054. It was a symbolic act and at the same time, a very significant act that the mutual excommunications were looked upon as null and void from that point on when they met in Jerusalem. That was a historic first: when the patriarch of Constantinople and the pope of Rome met and embraced each other. Since that time patriarchs have gone to Rome at the invitation of the pope. The present patriarch, Bartholomew, has gone.

One of the significant things as far as the world in Catholicism and Orthodoxy is that on the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul (June 29), the feast day of the patriarchate of Rome, a representative is sent by the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople to attend the celebrations in Rome. Then, on the feast of St. Andrew (Nov. 30), the feast of the patriarchate of Constantinople, a representative is sent by the pope in Rome to attend the celebrations in Istanbul. This reciprocal respect between the heads of the two churches is very significant, inasmuch as it acknowledges the fraternal relationship between the two churches at the highest levels.

This must filter down — and it has in the minds of the people. I can speak for our own people. The people don't look at Roman Catholics as out to get us (laugh). They're nice people and our people try to be nice people. That's a big change.

A few years ago the (Catholic-Orthodox) commission went as a body to Rome and we had an audience with Pope John Paul II. Then from there we traveled on to Istanbul to Constantinople and we had an audience with Patriarch Bartholomew. The whole committee — the Catholic and Orthodox bishops — we went to Rome and then to New Rome, as Constantinople is called. That was a very significant thing the bishops did.

Register: What kind of progress have you seen under John Paul II?

Metropolitan Isaiah: We know that in the last few years John Paul II wanted, and does want, to have a much closer relationship with the Orthodox. This is why he visited Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, the Republic of Georgia — here we have four Orthodox countries that were visited by Pope John Paul II. These were significant steps. As a matter of fact, a very rare situation came about when representatives from the Church of Greece went to Rome. The Church of Greece has been very, very vehement against the Catholic Church. And so, we see now good things happening. If we don't look to each other in a fraternal way we will never take the next step to resolve our differences.

Register: Regarding the fraternal relationship between you and Archbishop Chaput: He came to a liturgy at the Greek Orthodox cathedral, and you spoke at the Roman Catholic cathedral. Those are important, historic moments that speak to the laity about a deepening relationship between our churches. Why are those shared moments so significant?

Metropolitan Isaiah: They're significant because our Lord established one church. The scandal of Christianity today is that the church is not one. If I were not a Christian today, I would have a hard time becoming a Christian when you have in mind that there are 23,000 Protestant denominations in America, aside from our two historical churches.

The Lord established one church and it's our responsibility to see to it that we do whatever we can to convince ourselves —and each other — that we are all the family of God even though we are separated and that we should come together in Christian love.

That ties in, or should tie in, with why our Lord established the Church: to bring all people together. As he says, he is the head and we are the body.

Even if I don't see anything tangible more than I have, I will be pleased to know, and will have peace in my heart, that the people of our two traditions are at peace with one another and look upon one another with respect and Christian love.

Register: What is the main stumbling block to unity between the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox faiths and do you have hope for that to be bridged?

Metropolitan Isaiah: I can only reflect on what I see and hear: And that is the proper interpretation of the primacy of the pope. That has to be resolved somehow. The pope himself offered to us — and to all Christians — he said, OK, take this teaching that we have on the primacy and tell us how you see this. So he sees this as the main issue. So we have to say, OK, that is the issue — let's see how we can resolve it. Once that's resolved the Spirit of the Lord will do the rest.

 


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